Birmingham doesn’t have many sources of renewable energy; no tides, no major river, and winds too light and turbulent for use in urban areas. That leaves the sun.  Fortunately, everyone who owns the roof already owns a solar collector.  More energy falls on it in a year than you could use, so it’s just a matter of bringing some of that power into our buildings, in a form we can use.

My roof faces due south and is unshaded.  After insulating the loft and the walls, to keep in what heat comes through the windows, I considered solar water panels. However, looking at my summer gas bills, I could see that my use of hot water was low.  Replacing a bath with a shower took it down still lower.  Solar panels would generate a surplus of hot water that I could not use or export anywhere.  It would be different for a family of four.

OK – that means the roof is free to become a power station! I got a quote from a recommended installer.With that I applied online for a grant, which was approved in 30 minutes. However, this grant scheme has now ended.

However, following one of Friends of the Earth’s campaigns, Britain has a German-style guaranteed price for micro-generation.  From April 1st, we will be paid 41.3 p for every kilo watt hour generated, plus an additional 5p per kilowatt hour for the surplus that is exported to the grid, plus the value of the electricity that the house would have used.  A modest user of electricity like myself will, over the year, be a generator more than a consumer of electricity.  The rate of return on the capital cost is about 9%. And the value of the ‘power station’ goes onto the price of the house, I believe. 

Solar PV is expensive at present, so needs a heavy subsidy, but if this can expand the demand rapidly, then the costs will be spread over many installations, so the price can fall and demand can expand further. This process of public funds kick-starting a new technology industry has usually been the result of military or space programmes – now we are doing it to get clean energy down to a cost to, one day, compete with centralised coal or nuclear generation. Please remember that the first cars or computers were not cheap or efficient… Solar is starting its journey and needs some help.

Many people cannot afford the upfront cost of solar panels.  This year, the Birmingham Green New Deal will start to address this.  Cheap loans will cover the start up cost, which will be reduced through bulk buying.  Unfortunately, the pilot areas are quite small and the rest of Birmingham will have to wait a while to benefit.  In Moseley, British Gas are already putting in solar systems, whose savings and earnings will go into a community energy fund, to allow more people to benefit.  Details at SusMo website

The largest project in Moseley was to have been an array of 42 photovoltaic panels, generating 8,000 kWh a year, sited on top of Saint Mary’s parish church.  The parish council had a lot of support for this, but the city’s Planning Committee in February rejected the panels (invisible from most angles), by a narrow vote, on the grounds this would ‘damage’ the church and be an ‘intrusion’ in a Conservation Area.  This has huge implications.

Community and faith organisations who struggle to maintain large 19th Century buildings may not be able to benefit from solar technology if this involves changes to the external appearance. Churches are generally east-facing and have the largest south-facing roof in their neighbourhood.  The new capacity to earn from the ‘clean energy cashback’ means a conflict between economics and keeping buildings unchanged.  Householders who have chosen to live in well-preserved 19th Century houses in a conservation area are prevented from tapping into clean energy.  Pre-1919 buildings have just a single solid brick wall that leaks heat. The best answer is to add an outer insulating layer, but that changes the ‘red brick’ appearance. 

What is acceptable change to our thousands of Victorian buildings? The Victorian Society, which objected to St Mary’s photovoltaic scheme, currently has an exhibition in the Central Library praising the renovation of St Pancras station in London, to house a new high-speed rail terminus.

Birmingham City Council has just signed up to 10:10 – reduction of carbon dioxide emissions for the city by a 10% during 2010 – something Friends of the earth applauds – see website The Council should ensure that reasonable steps to actually cut the carbon of large buildings are not thwarted.  It seems that national planning guidelines now protect us from yesterday’s threats and have not prioritised the greater threat of what happens if we do not reduce carbon emissions in the 21st century.

The situation is parallel to that with wind turbines ‘damaging’ the countryside, ‘ruining’ the view etc. The conservation of appearances seems to be in conflict with conservation of the atmosphere.  We can see old buildings, but cannot see greenhouse gases (although they have increased 25% since 1950 – see ESRL)

Personally, I think we have to help our Victorian ancestors make amends for the coal burning that they instigated and the damage they (unknowingly) inflicted, by greening their buildings.  It is impractical to demolish our pre-1919 buildings, so Birmingham should be leading with demonstrations of visually acceptable ways to make them energy efficient.

My own house built in 1884 has reduced its energy use by 60 to 70%. Another house in Balsall Heath, built in 1840, has been made so efficient as to be a Zero Carbon House, heated by the sun and a few logs from the gardens.  Both of us will be open to the public on 28th March as part of the Old Home, SuperHome scheme. Details on website Sustainable Energy Academy or Balsall Heath is our planet.

There is an online home energy check at Energy Saving Trust (paper copy available). For a more detailed and customised Home Energy Masterplan to assess which energy saving measures on your house will save most energy and/or be the best value, see Parity Projects.

If you are unable to generate solar power at home, you can switch to a supply from Good Energy – a company that buys only from renewable sources.  £50 will be donated to Friends of the Earth when someone switches and quotes reference ‘Friends of the Earth‘. Go to Good Energy or call on 0845 456 1640.

John Newson